Vincent Colistro launches Late Victorians
Vincent Colistro’s debut poetry collection The Late Victorians came out with Véhicule Press this spring. His poems have appeared in The Walrus, Hazlitt, The Puritan, and elsewhere.
Catriona Wright is The Puritan’s Poetry Editor.
Catriona Wright: Many of the poems in Late Victorians are hilarious. A few, like “The Big One”, are overtly structured like jokes, complete with a punchline. Whenever I’ve seen you read, you’ve always gotten laughs from the audience. How do you think the role of the poet compares to the role of the stand-up comic?
Vincent Colistro: Well, first off, thanks for having me on the show, Catriona. And I’m glad you found some of the poems funny! I think you’re right there’s a link between poets and comedians. Both inspect and wrestle with the status quo, and both do so to share the experience of discovery.
But I think comedy has unseated poetry over the past 100 years in popular culture because its core purpose is more straightforward—laughter. The other stuff, the “Thinky Pain” as Marc Maron puts it, gets to tag along like a rider provision in a congress bill. Comedy has this way of leading different interpretations to the same general response—again, laughter.
Poetry doesn’t have a core purpose as easily definable as comedy (look at all the ink spilled everywhere), so maybe people are unsure what they’re supposed to glean from it, or how they’re to react. I love poetry for that. I love that a single line can elicit all sorts of interpretations.
The reason I guess that I use humour sometimes—maybe you could back me up—is to toss a little life raft into the storm and say, let’s all convene to have the same response to something, if just for a moment. It’s a cheap way to scooch your audience closer.
But I think comedy has unseated poetry over the past 100 years in popular culture because its core purpose is more straightforward—laughter.
CW: Yes, I totally understand what you mean. Hearing chuckles from the audience can be reassuring because at least I know people haven’t nodded off. It’s vulnerable and lonely up there on stage and I want some indication that the audience is listening and hopefully appreciating the work. There are no real equivalent vocalizations for other emotions or reactions (maybe a gasp or groan? Clapping seems obligatory and generally only happens at the end of a poem or reading, so I don’t think it counts). The classic beatnik finger snap could fill this void, too, so maybe we should be using that more widely at readings.
On the subject of performance, many poems in Late Victorians could be classified as dramatic monologues. The speakers, often actors, magicians or other performers, are unreliable, misdirecting through wordplay, wit, and slippery eloquence. The poem “Acting” in particular seems indebted to Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” Why does this form appeal to you?
VC: “My Last Duchess” was a huge moment for me! Grade 10, I think, and it came after studying so many earnest poet-speakers talking about themselves. The poem acted like a found object. Like someone with access to the full archives of human interaction just cherry-picked this one guy being a creep, for how implicative and evasive he was. Browning, that way, felt more like a curator.
I like that kind of authorship. There were times when I was writing Late Victorians, I just felt the editor of an anthology of weirdos. Now, having written all that, and seeing it in print, I all of a sudden feel this strong impulse to write about myself more. I’m really proud of those poems, but I see in them sometimes an emotional distance that I want to try and correct. I’d like to write more emotionally and directly. So we’ll see where that goes.
You use personae a lot yourself! Do you ever feel like it’s technique you use to emotionally distance yourself?
CW: That’s a tough question. I use personae for various reasons. They give me the freedom to explore different scenarios and genres (speculative, historical, etc.), which can help heighten or clarify certain emotions. Plus, it’s just fun to write in someone else’s voice! I think it’s possible to be emotionally truthful outside of a purely confessional mode as long as you’re using other voices in an empathetic way, not as stereotypes or caricatures.
That said, it’s true that occasionally it would be too painful or vulnerable or hurtful to other people in my life to write about certain experiences outside of fictional scenarios, so yes, I think it’s fair to say that sometimes personae create “emotional distance.” Then again, many people will just go ahead and assume that every time you use “I” you are in fact writing about yourself (possibly even more so if you are a woman or part of a minority group).
I’m interested in your comments about wanting to write about yourself more. The title poem in this collection is a closet play, a play that is never meant to be performed, and it’s populated by various Vincents (Vincent’s Double, Vincent etc.). Your wife, Michelle, also makes a cameo. The play—a parody of a poetry reading for an esteemed, unnamed older poet—seems to be concerned or anxious about poetry’s potential to be interesting and engaging, or its ability to compete with real-life concerns. Do you tell people that you write poetry (or do you only admit it to fellow writers)? Do you call yourself a poet? How do people normally react?
There were times when I was writing Late Victorians, I just felt the editor of an anthology of weirdos.
A closet drama from the Late Victorian era
VC: The closet play began, actually, as a poem. But as it took shape, and as the various voices in it began to crowd the poem, it felt natural (and sort of freeing) to hop genres over to drama.
I like to think about it as an origin story for the book. For Plato, poetry was a kind of sickness, because it meant that a person was fractured in their concerns and unable to live a unified life. I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I really liked the idea of being sick with poetry. So the closet play culminates in the moment that I “catch” poetry, watching it at a reading. It works its way through my body. Then the rest of the book is fractured into these various personae—some very personal, others sort of half-me, and many belonging to, as I mentioned, “weirdos.”
As for whether I tell people I’m a poet … I’m still working on that one. I prefer the exchange:
“Oh, what do you write?”
“Different stuff. Poetry mostly”
You know, bury the lead a bit. But it usually follows with:
“So what kind of poetry is it?”
“Um, I guess that’s difficult to say.”
“A bit like modern, sure. It’s hard to des—”
“Doesn’t rhyme or anything”
“For the most part no”
“So just the hamburger? No fries or drink?”
“Just the hamburger.”
“That’ll be 4.50”
It must be similar to how a data technician feels, like at a family reunion. People have a vague idea of what that is, but they might be hard-pressed to engage in a follow-up conversation. Maybe because they find it intimidating, or because they find it boring.
CW: On the subject of awkward conversations, let’s talk about sex! Certain poems, like “Brand New Sex Moves,“ take a comic, bawdy approach to sexuality, but others are more apprehensive. The speaker in “Betterment”, for example, starves himself until he is “archangelically / wise and non-sexual,” and in “The Muse” the narrator says he possesses “all the sex appeal of a sack of flour.” Sexuality is a source of comedy and anxiety for these (mostly male) speakers. Why these two reactions? Are the two linked?
VC: You’re right to pick up these characters’ apprehensions. To me, a Late Victorian has a laundry list of hang-ups about sex. The speaker in “Betterment” views sexuality through a binary of purity and corruption—to be genderless, to transcend carnality, is to be in the same rarefied space as God. That was a popular discourse in the Victorian era, not only in the church, but also in childhood sexuality. The discourse is modernized a bit in “Betterment” by looking at it through fad diets. There’s something religious about fad diets that strikes me as similar to Sunday school pedagogy: hollow yourself out, become less and become clean.
As for “The Muse”, well, that speaker is just an asshole. I used him to look at representation and power dynamics in art, how a male artist could couch his sexual objectification of a woman in a platonic ideal of beauty and perfection. I just tried to turn the camera around, so to speak, to get a look at this guy, this smarmy, seamy little artist. If he’s self-deprecating, as he is in the line you mentioned, it’s still to gain the upper hand, still to commodify the woman he’s painting. I was on the fence about including it in the book, because the speaker is so reprehensible and yet I allowed him to be kind of funny, but I think the poem gets its point across.
As for “Brand New Sex Moves,” I’m comfortable with saying that that’s just my fear of aging on display. My fear that the 2.0’s, the newest versions, are more well adjusted and having cooler sex. It’s something I’m working on.
CW: I’ll think we’ll leave it there, anxious about and amazed by the next generation’s cool new sex and/or poetry moves. Thank you for talking to me, Vincent!